Note: I haven’t made this public because I think I owe it to my players to talk to them about this first (then edit accordingly). I may never publish it, so please don’t share.
I’m a very unhappy person today because of how poorly my gaming session went last night. I apologize in advance for how poorly my writing will be; it’s coming from a place of deep frustration, so it’s bound to be no more than rambling. Of course, people should be lucky enough to have these problems, but that doesn’t change my mood.
Every Saturday, I drive up to Rockville, MD and, among other things, eat at one of my favorite “fast food” restaurants. It’s called Chop’t. They make salads. I did so today, and on the way I hurled insults at every driver that made a stupid maneuver. In doing so, I probably made stupid maneuvers myself being that I was focused on other drivers. When I was at Chop’t, someone cut in front of me to pay for his food. I’ve learned that, when animosity is on the line, it’s better not to react than to overreact. Accordingly, I said nothing and just bottled it up, but the anger was there.
I’m writing this post because I suspect just writing it may itself be good enough to get things off my chest, so if you’re rightfully worried I might snap at your criticisms, feel free to ignore it. 🙂 However, to the extent I can fix these problems, I think it’ll make the game better for everyone.
The Campaign and My Style
Briefly, the campaign is 4th edition D&D. (If you don’t like the mechanics of 4th edition, then that small part of this discussion might not matter to you. Feel free to skip it.) The adventure is story-driven. If you, for example, fail to save the princess, then I’m not going to punish you by not giving you gold, XP, or magic items. That kind of punishment is illusory. I’d just be forced to lower the power level of the following encounters so that you weren’t overwhelmed. No, the only punishment you’ll receive is that the princess is dead. That’s it. If that doesn’t bother you, I don’t know why your character’s alignment is “good,” but no worries. If you don’t care, then you’ll always have success in my campaigns. I hope you’re not bored.
The PCs have been tasked by the king with finding three artifacts: a staff, a rock, and a sword. The king claims that his mages’ and priests’ divinations say they’re important, but he claims not to know exactly why. At least one of the PCs knows he’s lying. For whatever reason, he won’t give them the whole story. So, the PCs went off to find the staff first.
Encounter 1: Frustration Level 0 out of 10
The PCs had a seemingly random encounter when they were attacked by a contingent of Verbeegs (i.e., elves the size of hill giants). Their knowledge of fey told them that Verbeegs don’t live in Toril (“Earth” of the Forgotten Realms), but rather in the Feywild (i.e., another plane of existence). There were only two points to this encounter. First, it served as what @luddite_vic would call a “James Bond” moment. Each session should always start out with a bang. It doesn’t have to be a fight, but it has to be dramatic and get everyone’s attention. Second, it served to give the PCs an “oh, I get it” moment later in the session when they reached their destination, which they will learn is existing both in the Feywild and Toril at the same time. That’s it. The story isn’t really advanced. Occasionally, encounters should just be there for their own sake.
Encounter 2: Frustration Level 4 out of 10
The PCs arrive and find a strange site . . . I mean, sight. And site. They find the structure in question, which has been partially excavated. Around it are several campsites of different races. Drow, grimlocks, dwarves, elves, svirfneblin, derro, and kuo toa have all set up camps outside the structure, ranging from 20-30 people per campsite. I was pleased that the players thought to disguise themselves. They’re all famous war heroes on a secret mission, so perhaps they should keep things quiet. (Sadly, however, in the end they pretty much gave themselves and their mission away.) There was a lot of information to be gathered from a few of the different camps, but the PCs chose to speak only to the semi-hostile Drow. They ignored the more friendly races even after I held up the “He’s lying” 3×5 card for the Insight monkey a few times. Go figure. But hey, the PCs may do whatever they want, and thanks at least in part to Mike Shea, I’ve learned how to minimize my prep time to avoid wasted work. No harm done.
Encounter 3: Frustration Level 0 out of 10
The players entered the structure and saw before them three doors. This was a false choice. It didn’t matter which one they opened. They all led to the same hallway, though it isn’t obvious when you open a door. Non-Euclidian math applies. They never tried to open the other doors, however, so they were seemingly-constantly second-guessing their choice for the rest of the night. “What if we had gone through one of the other doors?” Players just aren’t used to letting things go. They don’t like loose ends. That makes it either tough or frustrating for an encounter designer. It means that I have to take the time to create interesting encounters that will never be used just in case they are used. No thanks. I’d rather the choice be illusory so that my time isn’t either too short or wasted. The reason my frustration level on this one is 0 out of 10 is because in this case I did what I wanted. Player frustration, however, might be high.
Seriously, just let some things go, people.
Encounter 4: Frustration Level 10 out of 10
This is a 10 out of 10 because when I make a mistake, I don’t hide behind my pride or insecurity. I man-up and face it in all its ugliness . . . and then foolishly let it eat at me. But I digress.
The PCs entered the structure. Their first significant encounter was with a sphinx. While I’m probably not the first person to think of it, I came up with an idea that I thought earned me at least a B+ grade for encounter design on its own. The sphinx demanded that the PCs ask her a riddle she couldn’t answer. If successful, they could pass without a fight. I envisioned that the PCs would go around the table asking me riddles, and I would ask them, out of character, what the answer was, and then in character give it to them. The trick (and thus the sphinx’s real riddle) was for them to eventually realize that the sphinx could read their mind, so that the only way to beat the sphinx was to ask a riddle the answer to which the PC, in character, did not know. A poor choice of words on my part made that more difficult to deduce than necessary, but fairly quickly one of the players deduced it. The other players weren’t paying attention to that, so they didn’t know, but that’s on them.
Where I really screwed up is when one of the players asked “What’s the meaning of life?” This isn’t simply a riddle to which the PC didn’t know the answer. This is a riddle to which nobody knows the answer. That’s an even better way to solve my puzzle, right? Well, it flustered me, and I gave some sort of stupid response and dismissed it. So, the PCs solved the puzzle, but when the solution wasn’t acknowledged, it forced them to assume there was another answer.
Here, my mistake was that I had a vision of how things were to go, and I was unable to change gears. I love the fact that story-driven adventures give players to ability to go in any direction they want, yet when they did, I stopped it.
Encounter 5: Frustration Level 7 out of 10
For this encounter, I plagiarized heavily from AD&D module C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan. This was the Sandbox. Instead of a room filling with water and threatening to drown you, you’re faced with a room filling with sand and threatening to smother you. Somehow, that’s scarier to me.
For any who’ve read my article on the Dungeon Crawl System, I have a serious problem with the way traps are used in 4th Edition. I’m not going to repeat that entire section of that article for you hear. If you like 4e mechanics, then I encourage you to read that section, but even 4e-philes might want the TLDR version, so here it is: Traps should be sprung in all but the rarest of circumstances, but once sprung, they should be as easy to dispatch as any other “creature” in the encounter. In every single 4e encounter I’ve seen – WotC, LFR, home game – the way to defeat the trap is not to set it off. To me, that’s insane. If you had a party of stealth monkeys that could completely avoid every single fight in a game, would that be fun for anyone? I doubt it. If you think differently, by all means, build that party, but for what I suspect is the vast majority of us . . . .
Why isn’t it the same for traps? Why isn’t the preferred style (just like creature-based encounters) to make the trap almost impossible for the average player to avoid (happening only on an 18, 19, or 20), but once it’s sprung, disposable in 3-4 rounds, just like any creature?
Believe it or not, that was the TLDR version of my thoughts on the subject. I’ve worked out the math to make traps fit into my scheme of things, but it didn’t work here. This is the first of two times I’m going to “criticize” my players, so I want to make this clear: I don’t think players can be “wrong” or “make mistakes” from the position of the GM. If a player claims to roll a natural 20 every single time he rolls a d20, I don’t care. As long as that is (somehow) fun for him, I’ll allow it. His fellow players might have a problem with it, but if they don’t speak up, I don’t care. My sole job is to make the game fun for everyone. I have everything I need – a story, several NPCs to run each with different strengths and weaknesses – so I’m covered. Have at it, players. So, if a player enjoys something I wouldn’t, I don’t think they’re wrong, and I’m happy to allow them to play that way.
That doesn’t mean I can’t be deeply disappointed, though, when I strongly suspect they’d actually prefer it the other way but aren’t willing to give it a shot.
The PCs opened the door and saw the room. Because of the (not merely coincidental) math, even our perception money couldn’t spot anything on his passive perception, but I gave him an active Perception roll even though he didn’t ask for one. He rolled poorly, and couldn’t spot anything. Another player rolled about average, but couldn’t spot anything. The other two players didn’t bother. So, I guess that means they just walked right into the room and sprung the trap, right?
Wrong. After failing both a Dungeoneering check and Perception check, I provide a player a description of what she sees. She then shouts out, “Okay, a water breathing ritual won’t help us here. This room’s about to fill up with sand.” I absolutely couldn’t believe it. Before I knew it, two of them were setting up a tightrope so that one could acrobatically walk across it and avoid any trigger plates that in character they didn’t have any reason to suspect. One of them is climbing across the room, while another activates an item or power that grants spider-climbing. At this point, I threw my hands up in the air and just didn’t bother to bring in the Will-o-the-Wisp. I considered bringing it in earlier and having it set off the trap, but then I’d know I’d be criticized for meta-gaming. I just gave up on what could have been the most interesting and fun encounters the players would have seen in a long time.
If you ask any of these players whether they enjoy traps, they all insist they do, but when faced with a trap, they got angry that they couldn’t completely avoid it, and resorted to meta-gaming to ensure they did despite their rolls. That doesn’t sound to me like they enjoy traps any more than a stealth monkey party that completely avoids creature combats. Now if that’s true (i.e., they don’t enjoy trap encounters), that’s perfectly fine. The game should be fun for them, and if traps aren’t fun, then I shouldn’t have them. The problem with that, though, is that what makes my story interesting is intimately related to the existence of traps during this part of the campaign. Click here to open a spoiler page in a new window explaining why.
The mission is to stop the resurrection of a demigod of destruction. To kill the demigod, three artifacts were created: The staff to defeat his arcane and divine intelligence, the rock to defeat is immoral character, and the sword to defeat his martial might. To take possession of these artifacts, the PCs must pass tests of intelligence, moral character, and strength. (The PCs can’t know the details of their mission at this stage, because they need to be immune to the divinations of their enemies. It would also make the tests too easy to pass.)
In other words, if I remove the traps (and puzzles) from this part of the campaign, I’m forced to abandon my story in favor of a hum-drum, boring one. That would remove some of my fun, but I can live with that; I’d still get to play multiple NPCs, and to some extent there’d still be at least some story for me to write beyond a collection of combat encounters. The question I have, though, is would that really be what the players would want? Obviously, they need to answer that, so I need to talk to them.
What adds to the frustration is that, in creating my math for traps, I really thought I solved the problem of traps in 4th edition, and arguably in every edition. This experience (albeit anecdotal) makes me feel like the only person I helped was me. Nobody really cares about simulating the encounter in this picture:
To me, this should have been an iconic picture of 4e, showing how 4e mastered the art of creating combats with traps. I tweaked it to get it perfect, but it’s possible no one really cares. That’s a shitty feeling.
Encounter 6: Frustration Level 10 out of 10
This was the last encounter of the night. Again, this is my fault, and it sucks.
This is another room in which I plagiarized from Tomoachan. There are two more coming next week, but more on that later. There were four mirrors in a room that had no exit other than the door through which they entered. The mirrors were black (earth), white (air), red (fire), and blue (water). Moving adjacent to a mirror triggered something different for each one. This looked like a puzzle to everyone, but it wasn’t. It was meant to be interesting; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, the players kept looking for an “answer.” As a result, they didn’t take the rather simple step of looking behind a mirror. In AD&D days, you had to tell your DM that you were looking behind a mirror. In 4e, that’s not necessary. You have “passive perception,” which is 10 + your Perception bonus. It’s a great innovation. Usually, the conversation goes something like this (in 4e terminology).
DM: Roll a Perception check.
Player: I roll a 2.
DM: Oh, then I guess you don’t see or hear anything.
Player: Ummmm . . . okay, but I draw my weapon, cast Protection from Evil, and apply every metagaming trick in the book.
Passive perception (and Insight) allow the DM to fairly adjudicate matters like this without tipping off the players. In fact, I’ve used it with other skills as well. I asked one player last night what her passive Arcana was. It’s a great tool, but in any case is part of the rules of 4e. So, when our Perception monkey walked past the white mirror, he should easily have spotted the door behind the mirror.
There were two errors here. First, I didn’t follow the rules that everyone was expecting I’d follow. This itself makes a statement to the players that they’re “missing something” (further giving them reason to believe this was a puzzle encounter). Second, the fact that passive Perception should have come into play represents poor encounter design. This is a heroic tier problem that was placed before a paragon tier group. The only way to make it a challenge is to “cheat” in a sense, which is what I did. I know that DMs supposedly can’t cheat, but there are limits. When you completely stifle a character’s abilities because you don’t want them to succeed, then you’ve ruing everyone’s fun. To me, that’s a cheat. Even worse is that I made a similar mistake in the prior session, using an encounter designed for heroic tier in a paragon tier campaign. I really need to learn from my mistakes.
Next week starts with the last two encounters plagiarized from the Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan.
The red mirror in Encounter 6 was meant to foreshadow something that’s to occur later. When the PCs step before the mirror, they see themselves getting killed by a beholder. As someone who played AD&D then left the game for 24 years, I’m definitely one of the D&D nostalgia nuts to which WotC has been catering for some time. This plays out with me bringing back some old time AD&D monsters. I’ve used piercers, cloud giants (not published by WotC in 4e), and now the gas spore (sort of published in 4e as a related to the myconid). The idea is that the PCs will be quick to pull the trigger against the gas spore being that they’ve got beholders on the brain.
Now, based on my experiences, I think this will just piss off my players, even if I justify the encounter within the math of 4e. I’m just not sure they like these kinds of tricks.
I think the simple answer to the traps problem is to talk to my players and see what they want. I’m not sure how to do that without getting them angry. One of the best skills I have as an attorney is that I can separate issues. Most people can’t do that, and I’m afraid they’ll shift focus on what I did wrong, missing the point. The answer to my own problems is probably just to keep myself aware of them, which I’ve tried to do here by writing them out.